Photos by Hugh Hudson
Shallow reefs, deep and shallow wrecks, sanctuary protected marine life and year round diving. Okay, no shore diving to speak of, but there are plenty of good reasons that Key Largo is a popular destination for divers from across the country and around the world. It is ideal for beginners with reefs that are 30-40 feet in depth and advanced and technical divers can explore deeper wrecks like the 510-foot USS Spiegel Grove to the extent that their training allows.
Key Largo – known outside the dive community for the classic Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall film (not to mention the later song by Bertie Higgins) – is the first populated town as you leave the Florida mainland peninsula and make your way south to Key West and the southernmost point in the United States. Key Largo is also home to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first underwater park established in the U.S., and the iconic, much-photographed Christ of the Abyss statue sits in only 25 feet of water at a site called Dry Rocks. It is, however, the sheer multitude of dive sites and dive operations that makes Key Largo a favored spot. If you want extra details about the geological underpinning of Key Largo’s diving, check out http://www.fla-keys.com/keylargo/keylargodivewonderland.cfm, but for the sake of this post, let’s focus on the more than 50 regularly visited sites that are available within a 40-minute boat ride. With the third largest barrier reef in the world, the sites are a mix of natural reefs and numerous genuine wrecks in scattered debris fields as well as ships deployed as artificial reefs. The older, genuine wrecks have little structure remaining as is to be expected in warm salt water, but they provide great habitats for creatures large and small.
While you do not, in general, have the profusion of colorful corals and sponges of many places in the Caribbean, abundant and healthy marine life is to be seen within moments of slipping underwater. “The usual suspects” will be multiple varieties of snapper, parrotfish (including the beautiful midnight variety), barracuda, angelfish, butterfly fish, trumpetfish, grunts, hog fish, file fish, lizardfish, squirrelfish, trunkfish, damselfish, eels, southern stingrays, turtles, nurse sharks, groupers, (including goliaths), sea cucumbers, shrimp, and lobsters. A hundred other species could be named and seeing dolphins on the ride to or from the sites is not unusual, nor is the appearance of manatees in the canals. Snapper Ledge gets its name from the fact that schools of fish are often so dense that they obscure sections of the reef. For those who happen to be in the water at the right time and location, there are occasional visits from a cruising hammerhead, a manta ray, or even a whale shark, and technical divers who go to the really deep wrecks such as the Northern Lights will often encounter bull sharks.
Although the reliability of Key Largo weather can be impacted by either storms or systems that bring in high winds and the water temperature does drop to around 70 degrees in the winter months, charters go out every day of the year, conditions permitting. Granted, there is an element of amusement when locals hesitate to dive with air and in water with a temperature in the low 70s, while visitors escaping snow and ice are happy with the balmy weather. However, when it is chilly, appropriate protection with layering is in order for the boat ride. March through mid-May usually brings air temperature in the 80s and the water moving up to 75+ degrees, and by the end of May through late September, hot is the word. Hats, sunscreen, and hydration are all important. October is a toss-up with heat that usually comes down in November.
Visibility and currents on the deep wrecks will often vary more than on the reefs and a normal day for the reefs will be 50-60 feet of visibility and mild current, with frequent days of 70-100 feet. For those who appreciate technology, there is a NOAA tower mounted at Molasses Reef and you can access it for the latest conditions. (http://www.ndbc.noaa.gov/station_page.php?station=mlrf1)
Choosing among approximately two dozen dive centers in Key Largo might be the difficult part, and that very much becomes a personal choice. Some shops specialize in a maximum of six passengers, others have the 14 passenger boats, and several operators have the large boats that carry between 30 and 42 passengers. The larger operators may have two different size boats that can be a factor if traveling with a group of mixed levels. Many of the dive shops have their own dock and others have a storefront with their boat at a nearby marina. There are resorts that have the complete package of lodging, on-site dive center, and restaurant. Individual dive centers may well have discount arrangements with hotel and restaurants, so check that when you either call a dive shop or look at a web site.
There are three particular things to know about dive centers in Key Largo. The first is a regional Coast Guard requirement for a mate to remain on board with the captain any time there are more than six customers. This means that unlike in most other places, dive centers, in general, do not put a dive master into the water with divers because that would mean having two dive masters per trip which would then increase the per dive cost. Some dive centers have chosen to either absorb that cost or pass it on, but if you want a guide, you will need to ask the direct question. Hiring a guide will be an additional charge and also leads to the next item. The scuba community standard policy is that if a diver has not been in the water for a year, the shop could very well require the diver to have a guide for the first trip and this will be an additional cost. If it has been two or more years since last diving there may be a need for a refresher course. The third item is for those who wish to dive the deep wrecks of the Bibb, Duane, and USS Spiegel Grove. These are advanced dives with the community standard of showing proof of advanced certification, documented wreck and deep experience, or to be in the company of a guide in order to do the dive. Even though you can dive a small part of the Spiegel at approximately 65 feet, most of the ship is at 80 feet or below and current can be challenging. Descending onto the 510-foot long ship is an awesome experience, but it is not for novices. While the Bibb and Duane are not as large, they are older artificial reefs with significant marine growth.
For planning purposes, Key Largo is a little over an hour from Miami International Airport during non-peak traffic time and Fort Lauderdale Airport is twenty minutes further north. The Florida Turnpike (toll road) is the most direct route and it ends in Florida City/Homestead as you pick up Highway 1 South, also known as the Overseas Highway. This is a two-lane road with only a couple of passing zones, so relax and watch for egrets, ospreys, herons, and other water fowl along the way.
Once you arrive in Key Largo, local directions tend to be given as Ocean Side or Bay Side and by Mile Marker rather than using street names. As you drive south, the Atlantic Ocean is to your left (east) and Florida Bay to your right (west). The sunset restaurants are bay-side, but the dive sites are ocean-side and therefore about ten minutes less of a boat ride if the dive center you choose is located ocean-side.
If there is one thing that rivals the number of dive centers in Key Largo, that would be restaurants and bars. As you can imagine, there is a lot of outdoor dining, and casual is most assuredly the preferred attire. Claims to have the best conch fritters and key lime pie abound and while American cuisine and fresh seafood are what you find the most, you can get Italian, Mexican, Thai, and one or two others. Hog fish and lion fish might be on the menu – both are firm white fish that you won’t find offered in too many places and both are highly recommended.
For your non-diving days, or if you have non-divers with you, other watersports are plentiful and the Wild Bird Center is a fun place to visit. A short trip south will take you to the Theater of the Sea or to the History of Diving Museum with its rich displays of 4,000 years of man’s attempts to temporarily exist beneath the waves. A short trip back north to Florida City and Homestead puts you at the doorstep of the Everglades and Biscayne National Parks, the Coral Castle, and the Monkey Jungle. In fact, if hotel rooms are hard to find in Key Largo, Florida City and Homestead provide an easy alternative. If you want to take the Overseas Highway all the way south passing through Islamorada, Marathon, over the much-filmed Seven Mile Bridge and arriving in Key West, plan a full two hours. The scenic two-lane road has few places to pass.
Warm breezes, palm fronds rustling, tropical blossoms, parrots that streak overhead top side, with teeming marine life below. This is the Key Largo that you may not have visited for a while, or perhaps have never come to. It is a slice of paradise right here in the United States, and for those 300-plus days a year when Mother Nature isn’t being capricious, a healthy underwater world with the tiniest shrimp up to 600-pound goliath groupers awaits you.
An excellent web site for more information is http://www.fla-keys.com/keylargo
Unveiling Indonesia’s Dive Gem: Welcome to Bunaken Oasis, Where Adventure Meets Luxury
Embark on a journey to a sanctuary meticulously crafted with a single vision: to redefine luxury diving in North Sulawesi. Born from a culmination of global experiences, our resort stands as a beacon, promising an impeccable fusion of opulence and ecological mindfulness.
Nestled in the Bunaken Marine National Park, our commitment to an eco-conscious existence is at our core. With 12 exquisite cottages designed for comfort and splendour, every desire finds fulfilment within our haven.
At Bunaken Oasis, sustainability isn’t a buzzword; it’s our ethos. Our water, purified through innovative means, erases the need for plastic bottles, ensuring every sip aligns with our eco-friendly stance. With pathways weaving through the hillside, nature’s beauty is at your doorstep.
As your boat docks at our private jetty, the journey begins through the elegant Long House, leading to an ethereal infinity pool overlooking the horizon. Beyond lies our haven: a cocktail bar, a panoramic restaurant serving culinary excellence, and a serene spa to soothe your soul after underwater escapades in the awe-inspiring depths of Bunaken Marine Park.
Luxury here isn’t just a notion; it’s a standard etched into every facet of our 70sqm villas. From thoughtfully curated amenities to breathtaking vistas, your stay resonates with indulgence and comfort.
Bunaken Oasis stands as a beacon of ethical tourism, securing recognition for our commitment to nature. With an extensive infrastructure ensuring minimal environmental impact, we’re pioneers in nurturing and enhancing the marine park’s wonders.
Our dedication extends to our garden, where organic produce flourishes, enriching both our cuisine and local community ties. Beyond the confines of our resort, we encourage exploration, offering curated excursions to delve deeper into the vibrant local culture and landscapes, inviting you to discover the mesmerizing depths of Bunaken Marine Park through expert-led diving adventures.
Explore an aquatic wonderland at Bunaken Oasis, offering access to 80 diverse and stunning dive sites. Encounter majestic sea turtles, some so colossal they seem prehistoric, gracefully navigating vibrant reefs.
Discover hidden treasures like pygmy seahorses and intriguing frogfish among the kaleidoscope of healthy coral formations housing over 2,000 fish species.
Join us at Bunaken Oasis Dive Resort & Spa, where luxury meets responsibility, and every moment resonates with the harmony of nature.
My week on Scuba Scene: simply the best Red Sea liveaboard experience
Saeed Rashid is blown away by the first-class luxury Red Sea liveaboard, Scuba Scene.
I first dived the Egyptian Red Sea in 1997 on a land-based holiday, diving with Divers Lodge out of the Intercontinental Hotel. Our accommodation wasn’t as fancy as the Intercontinental; it was just a small, cheap affair a few miles down the road, with very questionable food! Each morning we were picked up by a minibus and driven to the Intercontinental where we had to collect our dive gear from the small dive centre and carry it down the jetty to our day boat. We would then slowly steam out to our dive site where we would do a couple of dives before heading back and carrying, rinsing and returning all our gear to the dive centre ready to do it all again the next day. It was a right faff. I remember seeing larger boats and being told that they were floating hotels and dive centres rolled into one. People would board them, not get off for a week, and all you needed to do was step into your gear that was permanently set up and fall into the sea. As far as I was concerned, this sounded like pure luxury, and I told myself that this was the diving I wanted to do from then on. A couple of years later, after managing to save up the £500 it cost to stay on one of these amazing liveaboards, I made it – and have never looked back.
Since my first outing, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have stayed on many liveaboards all over the world, but the Red Sea is still one of the most important destinations. With literally hundreds of liveaboards operating throughout its varied waters, most divers I talk to book onto them regularly. As you can imagine, competition between boats is strong, and I had believed that the pinnacle of luxury already existed in the liveaboard world. Every year the food would get better, with some boats even having a dedicated pastry chef to give you your daily sweet treats. The crew would always be amazing, on hand to help at every moment and larger and larger inside spaces and cabins became more and more comfortable. In recent years, some boats even boasted Jacuzzi hot tubs for you to relax in at the end of a hard day’s diving. But on a recent trip, all my expectations were blown out of the water – there is a new boss in town, and her name is Scuba Scene.
Scuba Scene is managed by the incredible duo, Ahmed Fadel and Elke Bojanowski, who many of you will know from their days working for Blue O Two. Ahmed is a tech diving guru and his boats have always played host to some of the most intrepid deep divers in the world. Elke is the founder of Red Sea Sharks and the only scientist operating in the Red Sea studying oceanic white tips. Her knowledge of these amazing creatures is surpassed by none and her world-famous shark diving trips are a must for any shark lover. So, with these two in charge, you know that the boat is going to be good but Scuba Scene is even better!
I was lucky enough to be on probably the best northern Red Sea itinerary. North wrecks and Tiran, which takes in all the must-see spots, such as the Ras Mohammed marine park, Abu Nuhas and of course the old lady herself, the world famous SS Thislegorm. But I was most looking forward to diving the reefs of Tiran Island as I haven’t been there for many years. Laying just to the east of Sharm El Sheik, Tiran Island sits at the gateway to the Gulf of Aqaba, a deep water sea 180km long and 20km wide that’s in fact the northern tip of the Great Rift Valley that stretches 7000km all the way down to Mozambique. Although this area is easily reached by dayboat from the mainland, this incredibly rich and diverse stretch of water really needs to be visited by a liveaboard that gives you time to explore the four main reefs, Jackson, Gordon, Thomas and Woodhouse.
But before we got on the way, there were the all-important safety briefings. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that in recent years, there have been several boat incidents, and where in the past, I would often not pay full attention to the briefings, they have now become forefront in my mind. You would never know that Elke gives this briefing every week; it was informative, insightful, and even fun when we all had to try on our life jackets. That really is the best way to get someone to remember very important information. I know this is becoming a lot more standard these days, but it’s nice to see people using equipment instead of just being told about it. It was also clear why these demonstrations were really important, as several people had never put on a life jacket before.
A couple of guests requested a walk around to see some of the other safety equipment, and I tagged along. As well as the lifejackets, there are three 25-person lifeboats, and of course the two large speedboats we would be using for diving in the week, and with numerous flotation rings all over the boat, we were definitely covered in the unlikely case of an evacuation. Scuba Scene also has one of the most comprehensive firefighting systems I’ve ever seen. Smoke and heat alarms all over the boat feedback to a panel on the bridge, so if one is triggered, the captain can quickly see its location and inform the crew, who if needed can man one of the six fire hoses that cover every part of the vessel. It’s clear to see that a lot of thought has gone into the safety features onboard Scuba Scene, and I felt my trip’s safety was in great hands.
Our first days diving was, of course, a check dive to make sure we could all still go underwater safely. Often people dismiss these as uninteresting sites, but in my experience, these areas are dived much more often than other reefs and the marine life has gotten very used to us alien divers, meaning it’s possible to get much closer to the reef inhabitants than you would be able to at other locations. So next time don’t turn your nose up to the check dive – think of it as a great opportunity to meet your new fishy pals.
We were soon off to Tiran and the incredible diving there. As soon as I dropped in, I was reminded why I have always loved diving here. As I mentioned previously, the coral reefs of Tiran sit on the southern edge of the Gulf of Aqaba and are fed by the rich deep waters that surround it, meaning they always have abundant fish life and beautiful corals. Thick clouds of Anthias sweep back and forth over the reefs trying to hypnotise unsuspecting divers with their rhythmic movements. This beautiful and often overlooked orange fish is sometimes referred to as the Queen of the Red Sea and is one of my favourites; some say it used to be present in such large numbers the water would look red, hence the name, Red Sea.
While exploring the shallows with my buddy Elke, we came across one of the largest schools of masked butterfly fish we have ever seen. Often, these fish swim in pairs or sometimes in small groups, but this school of several hundred was a rare and beautiful sight that we enjoyed spending much of our dive with. Turning around and heading back towards the boat, it was lovely to see the large bright green lettuce corals which are abundant in the shallows, with gorgonian sea fans and soft corals liking the deeper walls and drop-offs. It’s always worth keeping an eye out in the blue here, as large pelagic fish will often be swimming by. I remember spotting a large school of massive yellowfin tuna here. Each fish must have been two and a half meters long; I have never seen tuna so big since. If you are lucky, hammerhead sharks can also be spotted in the area, especially around Jackson Reef. But as always, time underwater is never long enough and it’s time to surface. We are the only boat here, but even if we weren’t, it would be easy to spot our boat – underwater, her huge size makes her very recognisable.
Scuba Scene is no normal boat. We divers have some very specialised requirements and as you would expect, every part of this vessel has been designed with us in mind. When you step on board, you are presented with a vast teak dive platform with two full-size showers on either side, and not just shower hoses that drip water like you see on many other boats. Two rinse tanks right next to them allowing you to fully rinse your gear after each dive. . The kitting-up area is just above this, easily big enough to fit a maximum of 28 guests. Not that you would ever need to, as dives are always split into two groups, meaning there are never more than 14 guests getting ready at any one time, making this area feel absolutely vast. Just behind the dive deck is a camera room – yep, an actual camera room – with sloped cubbyholes so your gadgets don’t fall out if the boat rocks and charging points so everything is all in one place. As a photographer, this one feature on its own would guarantee my booking on this boat. For years I’ve had to take up valuable space in the saloon, getting funny looks from other guests for spreading all my camera gear around the seats and tables, but no longer; I now have my own space, and I am so happy.
Very often, sleeping accommodation on a liveaboard is below decks with the saloon above, but Scuba Scene has flipped the deck plan. This means there are no cabins below the waterline. Talking to some of the guests on the trip, this was one of the reasons they had booked, and had enabled some to experience the joy of a liveaboard for the first time because they never liked the idea of being ‘stuck down below’. This also means everyone is well away from the engine room and any noise, giving you a nice, peaceful sleep even when the boat is moving. Another unusual feature is that virtually all the cabins are the same, with twin beds that can easily be moved together to give a king-size double. A double bed, if available, was often something you had to pay a premium for, but not here. There are two cabins in the bow which have been designed as singles and where I stayed. Even as a single cabin it was still bigger than most other boats I have ever stayed on, with the same large ensuite bathroom with a lovely rainfall shower just as the rest of the rooms have. Gone are the small portholes, replaced with full-length panoramic tinted windows which are also used in the shower rooms, and it’s quite an experience showering while looking out at the fish on the coral reef you just dived. Don’t worry, there is a curtain for you to draw if there’s another boat alongside!
I know what you’re thinking – what if you wanted to get away from all the talk of diving (madness, I know)? Maybe watch a movie, or even have a quick game of Call of Duty? I’m pleased to say that Scuba Scene has you covered here as well. Tucked up at the bow is the boat’s very own cinema/games room, and not a pokey little cupboard either, but big enough to get everybody in. Although an amazing asset, this room was the one that was the least used on my trip and I had forgotten it even existed until the last night when I was challenged to a game of Mario Kart. Where this room could be very useful is if you had younger guests or a smaller group who wanted to do some bespoke training away from the main saloon so as not to disturb others.
What about the food you ask? I’m not sure I’ve ever been on a diving holiday and gone hungry. In fact, there is often so much food that I go home several kilos heavier than when I arrived, and nothing changes here. You literally want for nothing. Catering for a range of diets, steaks are cooked to your liking (and it really is some of the best steak I’ve eaten), but if you prefer a plant-based diet then you are absolutely taken care of just as well.
But I’ve left the icing on the cake until last. Scuba Scene has a swimming pool! Yeah, that’s right, it has an actual, real swimming pool. Okay, if I’m being honest, it’s a bit more of a splash pool, but it’s big enough to get a dozen of you in at the end of a hot day to cool off with an ice-cold Sakara Gold. This was a first for me, having been on dozens of boats with Jacuzzis which are great, but are not used as often as you would think, taking a long time to fill and only a few of you can fit in at a time (oh btw, Scuba Scene has one of these as well). This pool is filled with filtered seawater in a matter of minutes, meaning that whenever the boat is moored for a while the pool can be filled. Because of the nature of liveaboards, you don’t often get non-divers or divers who want a more relaxed holiday where they would maybe dive once and then sit around the pool. Well, we had exactly that on this trip, a non-diving partner who took the opportunity to occasionally snorkel and then indulge in the swimming pool. Talking to her at the end of the week, she said that the swimming pool made the trip very special and she didn’t feel left out from all the diving going on around her.
At 48.5m in length, Scuba Scene is one and a half metres under the legal length of a cruise ship, meaning she is probably the biggest liveaboard that anyone will ever build. As a cruise ship, vessels must conform to even stronger regulations, from permanent lifeboats hanging from davits to a much higher crew-to-guest ratio. All of these things would increase overheads and make the operation of these boats much less viable meaning we will probably never see super liveaboards cruising up and down the Red Sea.
The Scuba Scene website says, “M/Y Scuba Scene is spacious, functional and comfortable, with regards to the cabins as well as the public areas and the dive deck.” In my opinion, this is the most understated quote I have ever read. Scuba Scene is by far the most luxurious and well-equipped liveaboard I’ve ever been on. I love the boat so much I’m heading back next summer to run an underwater photography workshop on her – who’s with me?!?
To book a trip on Scuba Scene or a place on Saeed’s 2024 underwater photography workshop, visit https://oysterdiving.com/trip/scuba-scene-red-sea-egypt/.
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